'We have a shot': Tigers broom Twins, get back to .500 and join playoff conversation
Detroit — Tyler Alexander didn't even blink.
Asked if the Tigers were starting to feel like they had a shot to make a run at a playoff spot, he said, "We've known it the whole time."
It's hard to believe this is the same team that just 10 days ago limped into Cleveland dragging a nine-game losing streak on its back.
"We know we are talented and we know we have a chance to do something special and surprise a lot of people," Alexander said. "We have that mentality, even when we're not winning."
The Tigers swept the Minnesota Twins out of Comerica Park Sunday with a 3-2 win. It was their fifth straight win. It was the third straight series they've taken from teams who came in leading their division.
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And, most importantly, they climbed their way back to .500 (16-16), going 7-2 since snapping the skid, and into the playoff race. They are just 1.5 games back in the wild card race.
"I've been saying that and people laughed at me," manager Ron Gardenhire said of his team being a playoff contender. "Now everybody wants to talk about it. But I've said it the whole time. Anything can happen in this short season. And there's a lot of openings in this thing.
"As long as we keep playing like we have, we have a shot."
The Tigers had to scratch and claw against right-hander Kenta Maeda Sunday, who came in with a 4-0 record and a 2.21 ERA and was giving them fits with his stop-and-start delivery and multi-directional change-up and slider.
But they made the most of the few hits they got. Two of them were home runs — a 406-footer to right by Jeimer Candelario that tied the game 2-2 in the fourth, and a hooking liner inside the foul pole in left by Jonathan Schoop that broke the tie in the sixth.
"We've got some people doing some pretty good things on offense," Gardenhire said. "That's what it takes to win, you've got to have multiple people doing some things right."
Candelario hit slider, which is significant. He was 3-for-32 against breaking balls before that at-bat. It was his fourth home of the season.
Schoop, the former Twin who leads the Tigers with eight home runs, hit a sinker.
"Feels really good to get the win against them and to get the sweep," Schoop said.
The other run off Maeda came in the first — a lead-off triple by Victor Reyes and an RBI single by Miguel Cabrera. For Cabrera, it was his 2,000th hit as a Tiger. He’s one of eight players to achieve 2,000 hits in a Tigers’ uniform.
"I am happy for reaching 2,000 hits with the Tigers and most important, we are winning games," said Cabrera in a statement. "We are growing up as a team and that can be seen on the field."
Cabrera had two more hits on the day and is 12-for-25 with nine RBIs in his last seven games. After collecting his 2,000th hit, he gave a curtain call to the empty stadium — classic Miggy.
"Every time he gets a hit, I swear we're collecting the baseball," Gardenhire said. "That was 2,000 hits for the Tigers. I started looking around the dugout, the rest of the team doesn't have 2,000 hits. It's kind of like, 'Holy Cow!'"
But the heavy lifting in this one, again, was done by the Tigers’ bullpen. Specifically, by lefty Alexander. He relieved rookie Casey Mize, who lasted three innings, and shut down a potent Twins lineup for 3⅔ innings.
He retired 11 of 13 batters he faced, allowing just two singles.
"It's just nice to get outs," Alexander said. "I've said I'd like to start, whatever. As long I am in the game and getting outs — I like getting outs."
He was at 49 pitches after a two-single by Jorge Polanco. Gardenhire, who vowed before the game to use Joe Jimenez, who had lost the closer role and pitched just 3⅔ innings since Aug. 9. He summoned him to face slugging Nelson Cruz.
Jimenez struck Cruz out, getting him to chase two sliders.
"That was a comfortable situation," Gardenhire said, laughing. "Facing their best hitter, one of the best hitters in baseball with the game on the line. That right there, though, getting that out, his confidence is going to go sky-high and we're going to get a better pitcher back the next time he goes out there, I am sure."
Buck Farmer pitched a clean eighth and for the second game in a row, Gregory Soto was summoned to close it out.
Which he did with less drama this time. He gave up a two-out single but nothing else, finishing up six scoreless innings by the Tigers' bullpen.
Mize will have better days. And the truth is, he will have worse days, too.
"It was tough," he said. "I didn't really have control or command of the baseball and it's tough to pitch without it. I felt like I competed and battled but it's really tough to pitch when you can't command the baseball."
The No. 1 overall pick from 2018, made his third big-league start and lasted just three innings. With a pair of walks, three hit-batsman and five three-ball counts, it took him 67 pitches to record nine outs.
He also took a liner, hit with an exit velocity of 96 mph by Luis Arreaz, off his left shin.
"It actually feels good, which is fortunate because it was hit well," Mize said. "But there's no pain, I have full range of motion and it doesn't hurt to touch. Somehow it doesn't hurt."
His lack of command didn't hurt him all that much either. He allowed just two runs. One scored on a wild pitch, one of three split-fingered fastballs he spiked on the day. The other was towering home run to right field by Polanco, who clobbered a 2-1 fastball.
"The level of fun has risen and we're not grinding as much as we were going through that losing streak," Gardenhire said. "Everyone is a little more relaxed. Everyone feels it when they get to the ballpark. It's, 'How are we going to win today?'
"That's the feeling you have to have to be successful in this league."